Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, VOLUME 10: 1945-47 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2010)

I'm tolerably familiar with this portion of Chester Gould's oeuvre, since it furnished the raw material for three of the five issues of Gladstone Comics' DICK TRACY ADVENTURES in the early 1990s. This period produced no readily memorable bad guys -- the vicious, forever-scratching gang leader Itchy Oliver is probably the best known, and that's only because he was one of the recurring villains in UPA's The Dick Tracy Show -- but Gould was still pretty close to his peak in terms of quality of work and public visibility. His imagination was so fertile during this period, in fact, that he saw nothing wrong with introducing characters who would have lasted for years in other strips and then consigning them to the discard pile without a second thought. (Fans of Tale Spin will know exactly what I mean.) B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, and ulcer-riddled industrial magnate Diet Smith -- atypical supporting players with long-term staying power -- managed to hang in there because (1) judging by the large number of single-panel shout-outs dished out by Gould in the midst of his various crime narratives, Gould's fans simply wouldn't let the cartoonist forsake B.O. and Gertie; (2) even the extravagantly profligate Gould recognized the potential story lines that could be spun off of Smith's access to unlimited funds (such as those that produced the legendary 2-Way Wrist Radio, introduced herein). "Ham actor" Vitamin Flintheart wouldn't be that lucky, though Gould would give him a few more featured roles (including this volume's creepy tale of "The Evil Influence") before dropping him for good in 1950.

What the villains of this era lack in terms of "instant recognition factor," they make up for in sheer viciousness. Itchy is relatively unmemorable apart from his scabrous habit but thinks nothing of shooting down his gangland pals in cold blood or starving the captured Tracy almost to death, just for kicks. The skin-crawling mesmerist Influence's bizarre appearance is only a surface reflection of the fact that he's quite patently insane; he strangles several people and tries to burn Pat Patton alive, among other gruesome things. Political "fixer" Shoulders abandons his "moll" without a second thought and guns down a little girl. The supposedly quasi-comical Gargles, after running the most ludicrous shakedown operation in living memory ("mouthwash bootlegging"? Couldn't it at least have been something that was still subject to postwar rationing?), whacks a store owner and a sick, elderly woman just to get back some incriminating photos. Even the origin story of the 2-Way Radio, which could have been a nice, simple case of industrial espionage, features a near-fatal shooting of Diet Smith and the disgruntled Smith employee Irma's cynical manipulation of her blind genius son, Brilliant. Flattop and The Brow may have been flashier (and uglier), but these were NOT nice people.

Brilliant and comely radio DJ Christmas Early are just two of the characters introduced in this volume who would have shorter-than-deserved shelf lives. The third and most intriguing of the significant short-termers here -- a character who really should have enjoyed a much longer career, IMHO -- is the spirited street urchin, Themesong. Think Darkwing Duck's Gosalyn Mallard, only with Kit Cloudkicker's back story and a much better singing voice. Even when she's technically a villain, Themesong is a thoroughly appealing character, and we definitely feel for her after she is shot by Shoulders and Gargles subsequently offs her mom. (There's a definite "spiritual connection" to Gosalyn's Grandpa Waddlemeyer and his fate at the hooves of Taurus Bulba there.) How I would have loved to have seen Junior Tracy, who himself experienced more than his share of time on the wrong side of the tracks, take Themesong under his wing, as it were, and become her friend, conscience, and ally. The formation of Junior's Crime Stoppers' Club was just under the horizon; why couldn't Themesong have joined Junior's generic guy pals as one of its members? I guess there is such a thing as being too inventive at times, and Gould simply wanted to move on (either that, or the thought of a co-ed kids' club never occurred to him). At least Theme (1) ultimately found a happy home with Christmas Early and (2) made at least one appearance as an adult during the Max Collins-Dick Locher era of TRACY.

The volume "makes its weight" with columns by Max Collins, Jeff Kersten, and Michael Price (who discusses the RKO Dick Tracy films). As always, these comments are far more than mere "filler" and maintain the Library of American Comics' high standards for supplemental material. I can't express how grateful I am to IDW for giving these "sequential-art classics" the treatment they deserve.

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